Ag Policy Blog

Poultry Growers Cry Foul Over Proposed Organic Rule

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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Highly pathogenic avian influenza was wreaking havoc on chicken and turkey operations a year ago this week. USDA and Iowa officials had just reported a 5.3-million chicken egg-laying farm was going to have to be culled because of H5N2, by far the largest chicken flock to be hit at that point in the avian influenza outbreak.

And as that was going on last year, USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service was lamenting the various weaknesses in biosecurity on poultry operations that allowed highly pathogenic bird flu to spread so readily from flock-to-flock. The bird flu outbreak cost roughly $3.3 billion in economic impact, hitting 21 states and more than 210 farms and the destruction of nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys.

In the aftermath of the outbreak, APHIS issued a report citing all of the problems with farm biosecurity that helped the flu spread, including failure to keep commercial poultry from encountering wild birds from the outside and droppings from the wild fowl.

Coming off that disaster just a year ago, chicken and turkey farmers are scratching their heads over a new proposal by the USDA agency that oversees the organic certification label. USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service came out with a proposed rule April 13 in the Federal Register to redefine organic livestock and poultry practices. The new rule would require any poultry farm wanting organic certification to give those chickens or turkeys year-round access to the outdoors.

Commercial poultry growers are questioning the logic, which they argue would increase the risks of birds being exposed to diseases.

“The proposed rule eliminates protections we have put in place as an important line of defense for the health of our hens and to reduce the risk of exposure to wild fowl and other disease carriers,” said Greg Herbruck, executive vice president of Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch in Saranac, Mich. “As currently written, the proposed rule would prevent organic egg producers from using common sense to guard against diseases like HPAI. Also, by the USDA’s own admission, we would see an increase in hen deaths due to disease.”

The organic rule specifically requires that poultry would have "year-round access to outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, direct sunlight, clean water for drinking, materials for dust bathing, and adequate outdoor space to escape from predators and aggressive behaviors suitable to the species, its stage in life, the climate and environment."

Poultry houses must have sufficient exit areas, appropriately distributed around the buildings, to ensure that all birds have ready access to the outdoors. Access must be designed to promote and encourage outdoor access for all birds on a daily basis, USDA cited in the rule proposal in the Federal Register.

The Michigan Agri-Business Association, which condemned the proposed organic rule even before it was published, cited a New York Times magazine feature that happened to run over the weekend as one rationale why access to the outdoors for organic certification doesn't seem like sound logic.

“This New York Times story is an important reminder of the devastation producers experienced across the nation in 2015 as a result of HPAI, and the potential consequences of another outbreak,” said Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association. “At a time when producers and state government officials are focused on preventing the worst-case scenario of another outbreak, USDA is proposing a rule that would expose hens to disease and dramatically increase risk. That just doesn’t add up, especially after the USDA just last year paid hundreds of millions of dollars to poultry farmers who lost their flocks to the disease.”

The organic rule is now in a comment period until June 13. https://www.federalregister.gov/…

NYT feature on avian influenza: http://www.nytimes.com/…

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